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Internet Activists Plot 2018 Electoral Revenge Against Republican Privacy Sellouts

Coming soon to a GOP district near you: Street protests, billboards, and online organizing campaigns.

President Trump and his Republican allies in Congress recently rammed through legislation allowing broadband giants like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to sell private consumer data to the highest bidder without asking for user permission.

Now, furious open internet advocates are developing political strategies and street-level tactics designed to hold Republicans accountable in the 2018 midterm elections for what privacy watchdogs are calling one of the most brazen corporate giveaways in recent US history.

Consumer advocates know that the privacy rollback—which eliminates the Federal Communications Commission's landmark 2016 broadband protections—is extremely unpopular with the American people. And they're not going to let voters forget how more than 200 GOP lawmakers sold out consumer privacy to the nation's largest internet service providers.

"The FCC privacy rollback bill is going to be a big 2018 campaign issue," said Gigi Sohn, a Fellow at the Open Society Foundations who previously served as a top counselor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. "You can't put lipstick on this pig. It's profoundly anti-consumer."

The FCC rules, which were set to go into effect later this year, would have required ISPs to obtain "opt-in" consent from consumers before sharing sensitive user data, including financial information, social security numbers, and browsing history. The broadband industry argued that the FCC policy put it at a competitive disadvantage relative to Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook, which are subject to weaker Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rules.

On Monday, Trump quietly signed the bill nullifying the FCC policy, just days after Republican lawmakers rammed the measure through the Senate and the House on partisan lines using a controversial legislative tool called the Congressional Review Act. Some 215 GOP House members and 50 GOP senators voted to approve the bill. Not a single Democrat joined them.

"Broadband privacy won't simply be a big issue in 2018, it will be one of the biggest," Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, told Motherboard. "Those members of Congress who recently took a big bite out of the protections that allow internet users to browse the web safely can expect that we will expose their positions, protest at their headquarters, and pressure all those that support them."

"We will not give up these rights we worked so hard to win without an extraordinary fight."

Many open internet advocates believe that the Republican effort to kill the FCC's online privacy policy is the opening salvo in a looming GOP campaign to attack federal rules protecting net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible. In 2015, the FCC moved to reclassify ISPs as "common carriers," laying the legal foundation for the agency's net neutrality and broadband privacy protections.

The FCC privacy rollback was extremely unpopular. A recent HuffPost/YouGov poll found that 83 percent of Americans across party lines believe that broadband companies should not be allowed to share or sell private consumer information without asking for permission. And 74 percent of the poll's respondents said that Trump should have vetoed the privacy rollback bill.

"The Republicans clearly misjudged their base on this issue," said Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight For the Future. "People from across the political spectrum overwhelmingly want a free and open internet and don't want their internet service provider to collect and sell the intimate details of their online activity."

Greer said that her organization is already laying the groundwork for a grassroots organizing and communications campaign designed to make Republicans who undermine open internet and privacy protections pay a price at the ballot box in 2018.

"We're crowdfunding to put up billboards to make sure that everyone knows the names of the lawmakers who voted to strip us of our basic right to use the internet safely and securely, but that's just the beginning," said Greer. "Any member of Congress who votes to undermine net neutrality or other basic internet protections will feel the impact of that at the polls. Internet users are rabid about protecting their online freedoms, and many will cast their votes based on that."

Cyril, of the Center for Media Justice, said that the Republican campaign to eliminate the FCC's broadband privacy protections has put "communities of color at greater risk for abuse by predatory lenders, discriminatory advertising, and racially biased government surveillance."

"You can bet that leaders within those affected communities will be out in force making sure everyone knows exactly who is responsible, and what those communities can do to protect themselves," Cyril said. "We will not give up these rights we worked so hard to win without an extraordinary fight."